Ecosystem restoration needs more environmental justice – Great Lakes Now

Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.


In southwest Detroit, evidence of environmental injustice can be found nearly everywhere, and communities of color and low wealth feel that polluting companies and government officials are not doing enough to address many long-standing environmental problems.

These communities are disproportionately exposed to polluted air, water and soil, and noise pollution. A recently published study in the journal Environmental Research has filled an important knowledge gap on the magnitude of the noise problem. This study found that traffic-related noise is widespread throughout southwest Detroit, and residents near truck routes, highway ramps and highways are disproportionately exposed to it.

Traffic noise is considered to be one of the worst environmental stressors for humans by the World Health Organization, second only to air pollution. Long-term exposure to elevated noise can cause hearing impairment and can affect sleep and physical and psychological health. Sleep deprivation is known to increase stress and elevate blood pressure, which can lead to coronary disease and heart attacks.

Researchers from the University of Michigan partnered with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition to evaluate the noise impact of the trucks on their neighborhood. Southwest Detroit has many logistics centers and freight and manufacturing operations that receive nearly constant deliveries. Compounding the problem, trucks are allowed on predominantly residential streets as part of longtime zoning. And currently truck traffic has been rerouted through neighborhood streets as part of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge construction to be completed in 2024.

This study found noise levels on the porches of homes on the residential streets, currently being designated as truck routes, exceeded the 70-decibel guideline used by the Federal Highway Administration, and peak levels were far higher. Further, weekday noise measurements ranged between 55.3 to 73.8 decibels, with an average of 62.1 decibels, with the highest noise levels between 7-10 a.m. and 2-5 p.m. The differences between day and night noise levels at most residential sites were consistent with traffic volume patterns on local highways. The high noise levels were found near trucking routes.

Dr. Stuart Batterman, lead investigator on the study, stated that the bottom line from a management perspective is that “we need to have designated truck routes that avoid these neighborhoods.”

These researchers will continue to monitor noise levels over the next several years.

Southwest Detroit has also long been recognized for poor air quality, including both zip codes 48209 and neighboring 48217, which remains among the most polluted areas in the state. More than two dozen major industrial facilities surround the neighborhoods in 48209 and 48217, and trucks spew out considerable air pollutants. Air pollution has been linked to health impacts such as cancer, asthma, birth complications, Alzheimer’s disease and more. It typically impacts the most vulnerable in our society – children and elderly.

A recent Health Impact Assessment of this same area performed by the University of Michigan, Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, and Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation found that children have twice the rate of asthma and seniors have three times the Michigan asthma rate if they live near trucking roadways.

In 2021, the American Lung Association reported that despite improvements in air quality Metropolitan Detroit is still ranked the 12th most polluted city in the United States, based on year-round particle pollution. The region also experienced more days with dangerous spikes in short-term particle pollution.

“Residents have come to community meetings carrying oxygen tanks, and teachers stack inhalers for their students on their desks every day. Residents can’t open their windows without emissions’ dust covering their counters. This is normal for southwest Detroit,” said Simone Sagovac with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, which has worked on community studies and remedies.

“We have over 600-800 semi-trucks driving on some Southwest Detroit residential streets daily,” Sagovac said. “And our air has been in ‘nonattainment’ for years for multiple pollutants, and permits keep getting issued to pollute. We need decision-makers to act and direct resources to change the injustice.”

In a 2017 human health impact study, the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice showed that exposures to fine particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are responsible for more than 10,000 disability-adjusted life years per year, causing an annual monetized health impact of $6.5 billion.

Thomasenia Weston lives in a house in southwest Detroit just a few blocks from I-75. She raised her daughter and is now raising her two grandchildren in this house. All three generations suffer from severe asthma.

For Weston, this new study is just more scientific proof of the air and noise pollution she and her family must live with daily. There are also sink holes in front of her house that she feels are caused by the many heavy trucks passing on her street daily. The vibrations from the trucks have caused cracks in the foundation of her house that are now allowing stormwater to flood her basement and make it unusable. Weston notes:

“No one should have to live in such air, noise and stormwater pollution. The air and stormwater pollution and noise war going on outside my front door are affecting my sleep and causing me a lot of mental stress. We are human beings and deserve the same quality of life as everyone else without being poisoned, aggravated and unheard.”

Environmental injustice occurs when residents of low-income and minority communities are disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks. Environmental justice requires the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

The overlapping crises facing southwest Detroit will require integrated solutions that provide meaningful justice for all living in this area. There is a critical need to shine more light on and raise awareness of environmental justice in southwest Detroit, and support and build the capacity of organizations working in the trenches of environmental justice.

Organizations on the front lines of environmental justice in southwest Detroit include:

Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation

Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition

Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision

Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

Michigan United

Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments


Catch more on Great Lakes Now:

Great Lakes Moment: The US-Canada ecosystem-focused approach to restoration

Great Lakes Moment: Walleye frenzy on the Detroit River

Great Lakes Moment: A Great Lakes Way stretching from southern Lake Huron through Western Lake Erie

Great Lakes Moment: From the Rouge River to Persian Gulf, oil spill cleanups are handled by a Detroit company


Featured image: Southwest Detroit (Photo Credit: Lauren Santucci)

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